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Travel: WILD WEST IS BEST; Neil Murray sings the praises of the Black Hills of Dakota.

IT is enough to take your breath away - the gigantic faces of four American presidents carved out of granite at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

The astonishing sculpture, of course, is what draws people to the area and we were no exception. The memorial is reflected on the state's current car licence plates, which read, "Great Faces, Great Places".

The faces in question are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln - and they're all 60ft high, dwarfing the Statue of Liberty's head, which is "only" 17ft tall.

Carved intermittently between 1927 and 1941 in a deliberate move to attract visitors to the state, they are approached through an "archway" of state flags and are, I have to say, a truly awesome sight.

We'd had our first look at mountain sculpture earlier at the Crazy Horse Memorial, which was started seven years after Mount Rushmore was finished, but now, 58 years later, is still being worked on.

The original sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, was employed as an assistant to Gutzon Borglum, the architect of the Mount Rushmore Memorial, before he was asked by Chief Henry Standing Bear to consider carving a giant sculpture dedicated to the legendary Sioux warrior Crazy Horse.

When completed - if it ever is - the sculpture of Crazy Horse on his mount will be 563ft high, considerably taller than the four presidents.

Earlier, we got up close and personal with a herd of buffalo as we drove round the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park.

We were waiting - along with a bunch of bikers and a few fellow motorists - for the herd to amble across the road at its own pace.

The Wildlife Loop Road, the Norbeck Byway and the Needles Highway form a gloriously scenic section of the park that produces dramatic views at almost every turn.

We'd been promised wildlife on the Loop and the buffalo and burros that we saw didn't disappoint. Neither did the Needles Highway, named after the sharp rocks that dominate the area.

After Mount Rushmore, a stop in Keystone meant we just had to call in at the Red Garter Saloon for a drink and a glimpse of Big Dave - all 7ft 2in of him - performing a comedy act and shoot-out with his Wild Bill Hickok sidekick, which went down a treat with all the bikers in the bar.

Rapid City, which sits on the foothills of the legendary Black Hills, makes an ideal base for visiting this part of South Dakota, as it is also close to the mysterious Badlands.

Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves was shot in and around the state, which explains where the Fort Hays Dances With Wolves Chuckwagon Supper & Western Show got its name.

The 90-minute show included a meal of barbecued beef, beans, apple sauce, a baked potato, scone and cake, as well as a five-piece band with a mix of comedy, cowboys and country and western music. Driving east from Rapid City took us towards the Badlands National Park and on to the Badlands Loop and its contrasting scenery of pointed peaks and flat-topped rock structures.

Everywhere we went in South Dakota was alive with the sound of bikers. No shock, really, as our visit coincided with the Sturgis Rally, an annual event that draws more than 500,000 bikers to the area from all across the States.

Not that we ever felt threatened. All of those we spoke to were very polite and there were more grey beards and bald heads than flowing locks and youthful vigour.

In Sturgis, the Main Street had bikes lined up on both sides and all along the middle, too. An amazing sight. In nearby Deadwood - where Wild Bill Hickok was shot and buried - we had to have a drink in the Eagle Bar in the Wild West Casino. This was where Hickok was killed on August 2, 1876, shot from behind by Jack McCall.

On the hills overlooking Deadwood, we were joined by more bikers in the Mt Moriah Cemetery, paying their respects (with coins on the headstones) to both Wild Bill and Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane, who asked, minutes before her death, to be buried beside Wild Bill.

So you can take me back to the Black Hills any time you want.

I LOVED The magnificent, contrasting scenery and the Wild West history

I HATED Coming home - it was a great trip

SOUTH DAKOTAMAILFILE

United Airlines www.unitedairlines.co.uk, 08458 444777) flies to Denver from Glasgow (via Heathrow) from pounds 463.10 inc taxes, or to Rapid City (via Heathrow and Denver) from pounds 556.90 inc taxes.

We stayed at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel, Rapid City (www.ramkota.co, 001 605 343 8550) and the First Gold Hotel, Deadwood (www.firstgold.com, 001 605 578 9777).

CAPTION(S):

Mysterious Badlands National Park ' Meandering Buffalo cause a traffic jam ' The astonishing Mount Rushmore Memorial took 14 years to build ' Bikers take over Sturgis for annual rally ' Crazy Horse memorial
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Sep 24, 2006
Words:831
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